Falcons host Cardinals in pivotal NFC clash
One team is hoping to prevent a second-half slide like the one that derailed its season a year ago.
The other is just trying to keep its head above water, knowing that one more loss could effectively end any chance it has left of making the playoffs for a third straight year.
That and more are on the line Sunday at the Georgia Dome when the Arizona Cardinals (4-5-1) visit the Atlanta Falcons (6-4) in a pivotal NFC battle.
This marks the seventh time in the past 11 years that the teams met, with each splitting the previous six meetings.
It's a chance for the Falcons to extend their slim lead in the NFC South over the Buccaneers, Saints and Panthers. It's a chance for the Cardinals to possibly salvage their season -- at least for another week.
Asked if his team had a sense of urgency, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, who had to spend a night in the hospital because of chest pains following his team's latest loss -- a 26-20 defeat at Minnesota -- just scowled.
"Oh yeah," he said. "If you don't have one right now you don't belong in the business, and you damn sure don't belong in this locker room."
The Cardinals have been searching for answers all season after a 13-3 regular season a year ago in which the offense set multiple franchise records and quarterback Carson Palmer was in the conversation for MVP candidacy upon setting several career firsts.
Palmer and the offense, however, went missing in 2016 and other than second-year running back David Johnson, who ranks third in the league in rushing with 863 yards, there hasn't been any of the same consistency Arians and the Cardinals are used to enjoying.
Palmer said there's only one thing on the team's mind as it gets ready for the Falcons.
"To win one game," he said. "Can't worry about seeding or standings or division records; nothing matters other than this game. As leaders, as the older guys in the locker room, you just keep everybody's focus on one day at a time, finishing today. We've got the practice part done. We have a lot of meetings and a lot of tape to watch. You finish day after day after day, and that's the mindset that we have."
As for the Falcons, they still have last season on their mind. Atlanta began 6-1, but scuffled their way to a 2-7 finish over their last nine games to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the third straight season.
Another second-half collapse wouldn't only be punishing, it could lead to more changes once again for a franchise that hasn't been able to finish what it started. Head coach Dan Quinn acknowledged that still resonates across the organization, but that last season's second-half fail could propel the Falcons moving forward.
"Well, we certainly hope so," Quinn said. "The scars that you get when you finish poorly, they definitely leave a mark. We're a way different team than our 2015 team -- our mental toughness, our resilience; we're just tighter, we're better, we're more complete in that way.
"That's, I think, the biggest difference. Although we didn't finish all of them like we'd like to this year, I would say we're quite a bit different outfit than we were at the end of 2015."
Atlanta boasts one of the league's best offenses. It's ranked first in points per game (32.0), yards per play (6.7), passing yards per play (8.9) and touchdowns scored (36). Overall, the offense is ranked third, averaging 416.6 yards per game.
Quarterback Matt Ryan is enjoying one of his finest season to date, ranking second in passing yards (3,247), third in passing touchdowns (24) and fourth in completion percentage (68.2). His favorite target, wide receiver Julio Jones, leads the league in receiving yards (1,105) and has been difficult for everyone to slow down.
Jones had 10 receptions for 189 yards and a touchdown in his last game against the Cardinals two years ago, torching Arizona's All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson. That was the season in which Peterson, however, was dealing with diabetes and it had to be diagnosed, which led to his worst season in the pros.
Peterson is a completely different player now, however, and Jones can see that on film.
"He dropped that weight, looks like he's in better shape," Jones said. "He's always a good athlete, a guy who can make plays. He can pretty much do a lot of great things."
Peterson will shadow Jones throughout the game, something other teams have tried and failed to do against Jones this season.
"Teams have been trying to do that, but they've been playing a lot of two-man while they were doing it," Jones said. "They'll take their OK corner and put him over me and then just have safety help, and try to put the better corner on the other side, try to let him lock that side down. Pat P, it's just usually one-on-one. It's always been great matchups between us."
The Cardinals get Tyrann Mathieu, their playmaking safety, back this week after the Honey Badger missed the last two games because of a shoulder subluxation. His addition could make the league's top-ranked defense, which is allowing a league-low 287.4 total yards per game as well as the fewest passing yards per game (190.2), that much more dangerous.
As good as Arizona's defense has been, Mathieu said it hasn't been good enough.
"I think we could play better," he said. "Every game, there's like three or four plays where we're just giving up touchdowns or giving up big plays. We've got to continue to create turnovers, we've got to create more turnovers, we've got to find a way to score and shorten the field for our offense."
Mathieu said the Cardinals will have their hands full with Ryan, Jones and Atlanta's running back tandem of Davonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who is finally healthy.
"They're a dominating offense, obviously," he said. "Matt Ryan is playing tremendous right now, Julio, it goes without saying, and they've got two running backs that are definitely going to try and hurt us in the run and the pass game, so our front has to play well, our linebackers have to play well and then on the back end, we've got to do a good of containing Julio."